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Zinnia & Tagetes by Walter L. Meagher
Photography by Richard Cretcher

wildflowers   These two plants flower in the same season, late summer to early autumn, side by side, around the edge of the presa, and in places outside El Charco where the ground has been disturbed; they overlook disturbance, destruction and upheaval in an expanding city, each having a beauty of its own.

Form and color are the two aspects of beauty most readily recognized in wildflowers. A walk in El Charco amongst a stand of wildflowers in full color frees the mind from its usual preoccupation with utility and possession.

Notice that Zinnia and Tagetes, so different in color, have the same form. Unlike an orchid, the flowering heads are symmetrical and open to all pollinators. In the center of each head are yellow disk flowers; the ‘petals’ are the other characteristic of composites (Asteraceae – Aster family plants): the ligulate flowers. I have said this before, and surely will say it again, because it is hard to remember that the Aster ‘flower’ is a flowering head, a city of flowers. Zinnia peruviana (Peruvian Zinnia) and Tagetes lunulata (Mexican Marigold) are both Asteraceae. What a family! We saw Cosmos in an earlier essay – we could just as well have seen Tithonia tubiformis. They have a form, all of them, loved by Van Gogh. The Aster family dominates the flora of El Charco with 95 species; two families, Legume and Grass, tie for second place with 46 species each. In third place, is Cactus with 22 species; and it drops off from there with many families represented but by only a small number of species.

While we may dismiss utility in our admiration of floral forms, the flowering head of a composite, as well as the flower of a non-composite, is a creation of the highest utility to the plant. If it succeeds in its work of attracting pollinators, the ovaries protected within the base of each flower will be fertilized and seeds set for the next generation of the species.

Like Jackie O, flowers dress to be noticed, to be seen in a favourable light. The Zinnia has the greater aesthetic perfection because its leaves are much less complex than Tagetes. Look closely at Tagetes: the leaves are compound, each leaf subdivided, and each leaflet has a serrated edge. Zinnia leaves are simple, they are opposite each other, they touch the stem, and the margin of the leaf is smooth.

Both these plants enjoy the north and east sides of the presa, not wet ground, but soil suitably moist from proximity to the water. For them, this site is a bonus. However, they do just as well where it is drier, on roadsides, on the grassy edges of baldíos, where the landscape is weedy and plants are hardy. It is surprising, then, that what is common and weedy is also blessed with ornamental value and, in the case of Tagetes, the medicinal property of preventing conception.

Adapted from Wild & Wonderful: Nature Up Close in the Botanical Garden, ‘El Charco del Ingenio’. Text by Walter Meagher; Photographs by Wayne Colony. 2008.


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